‘Who told you that?’ she returned quickly. ’Claude is my cousin,—at least step-cousin,—but we are very intimate; there can be no harm in writing to him.’
‘No, of course not: but if people misconstrue your correspondence?’
‘I cannot help that,’ rather despondently; ’and I do not see that it matters now; but still I will tell you, Ursula. Claude is in love with Lady Betty.’
‘With Lady Betty?’
’Yes, and Giles does not know. Etta did not for a long time, but she found out about it, and since then poor Lady Betty has had no peace. You see the poor children consider themselves engaged, but Lady Betty will not let Claude speak to Giles until he has promotion. She has got an idea that he would not allow of the engagement; it sounds wrong, I feel that; but in our unhappy household things are wrong.’
‘And Miss Darrell knows?’
’Yes; but we never could tell how she found it out: Claude corresponds with me, and Lady Betty only puts in an occasional letter; she is so dreadfully frightened, poor little thing! For fear her secret should be discovered. We think that Etta must have opened one of my letters; anyhow, she knows all there is to know, and she holds her knowledge as a rod over the poor child. She has promised to keep her counsel and not tell Giles; but when she is in one of her tempers she threatens to speak to him. Then she is always hinting things before him just to tease or punish Lady Betty, but happily he takes no notice. When you said what you did I was afraid she had made up her mind to keep silence no longer.’
‘Why do you think your brother would object to Captain Hamilton?’ I asked, trying to conceal my relief at her words.
‘He would object to the long concealment,’ she returned gravely. ’But from the first I wanted Lady Betty to be open about it; but nothing would induce her to let Claude write to him. Our only plan now is to wait for Claude to speak to him when he arrives in November. Nothing need be said about the past: Claude has been wounded, and will get promotion, and Giles thinks well of him.’
She seemed a little weary by this time, and our talk had lasted long enough; but there was still one thing I must ask her.
’Gladys, you said you trusted me just now. I am going to put that trust to the proof. All that has passed between us is sacred, and shall never cross my lips. On my womanly honour I can promise you that; but I make one reservation,—what you have just told me about Captain Hamilton.’
She looked at me with an expression of incredulous alarm.
’What can you mean, Ursula? Surely not to repeat a single word about Claude?’
’I only mean to mention to one person, with whom the knowledge will be as safe as it will be with me, that Lady Betty is engaged to your cousin Claude.’
‘You will tell Mr. Cunliffe,’ she replied, becoming very pale again. ’I forbid it, Ursula!’ But I hindered all further remonstrance on her part, by throwing my arms round her and begging her with tears in my eyes, and with all the earnestness of which I was capable, to trust me as I would trust her in such a case.